CFP: After 2016: The Crisis in Digital Democracy

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Closeup photograph of person wearing Google Glass wearable device over a Guy Fawkes mask
image via Thomas Hawk

The events of 2016 have demonstrated the precarity of digital technologies, revealing the vulnerability of digital networks to manipulation and the limits of both governmental oversight and the wisdom of crowds to police this manipulation. Despite the increasing elegance and robustness of digital networks, it has become clear that these networks are unable and unwilling to hold platforms, corporations, and governments accountable for their worst actions. Indeed, one of the most astounding aspects of the revelations concerning online manipulation in 2016 has been that the legal uses of digital spaces raise as many concerns and questions as the potentially illegal. The privileging of attention over other ends—accuracy, rationality—appears to have stunted the civic ethos once envisioned as the primary product of digital culture. It seems the digital revolution has arrived, but that revolution has not been as open or democratic as we were promised.

It is clear that open digital communities policed by user accountability are not enough to rein in a chaotic and anonymous “networked public sphere.”[1] Rather than a digital commons where individuals hold the government accountable and the government promotes civility,[2] many digital spaces are dominated by ad campaigns and bot armies competing for privileged deliberative capital. While scholars, practitioners, and activists have noted these vulnerabilities for years, recent events have exposed a range of mechanisms and actors willing to exploit these vulnerabilities, prompting a more general rethinking of the way our digital platforms have been designed (as well as how we engage with them). Such rethinking will necessarily engage a range of topics, as the causes and impact of these events engage multiple levels of technology and culture, including the design of networking technologies; theories of media, the public sphere, and politics; the impact of platforms and software on user engagement and beliefs; and the political and social environment in which such activities occur.

Call for proposals

We are seeking chapter proposals for an edited collection that brings together original research, analysis, essays, and descriptive case studies, using the events of 2016 and after—most notably, but not limited to, Brexit, the U.S. elections, email hacks, and the instigation of digital unrest—as a starting point for reevaluating the current and future role of digital technologies in the open exchange of ideas. We are particularly interested in proposals from scholars of digital communication and rhetoric, political science, computer science, and related fields that identify technical or social methods of digital manipulation, analyze the ideological or rhetorical means of influencing online communities, or explore trends or historical precedents for the splintering of online communities, ultimately connecting these events to the potential (or potential pitfalls) for accountability and civic discourse represented by the Internet and related systems of digital culture.

Potential topics might include:

  • The effect of online content laws in hindering or promoting online accountability or abuse
  • The spread/growth of clickbait, memes, and “fake news” and the impact of bots and sock-puppet accounts on distributing such content
  • Targeted social media campaigns and advertising
  • The role of Internet-era actors like Wikileaks in influencing public opinion and policy
  • The history of media disruptions in elections and how this history can inform current issues
  • The design of networked platforms and software as well as their role in privileging particular online interactions
  • The evolution of social media tastemakers, including activists, pundits, and entertainers
  • The role of anonymity and platform liability restrictions on civic discourse
  • Expressions of government accountability (or lack thereof) in digital spaces

In all cases, we are interested in scholarly research that explains the “what” of online manipulation and influence campaigns along with the historical and technological precedents that made them possible, identifying why such explorations matter to citizens, technologists, and policy-makers interested in the future of democracy in digital culture.

Submission information

Email 500-word proposals and author CVs to both John Jones (jones.6181@osu.edu) and Michael Trice (mtrice@mit.edu) by January 25, 2018. Authors of accepted proposals will be notified by February 15, 2018. Completed chapters of 6,500–8,000 words will be due in May 2018.

About the editors

John Jones is an Associate Professor of English at West Virginia University. His research has explored the networked editing processes of Wikipedia, group formation and argumentation on Twitter, the influence of networked processes on online writing, and the rhetorical uses of wearable technologies. He is currently co-editing Rhetorical Machines, a book on the intersections of rhetoric and computational culture. In January 2018 he will join the Department of English at The Ohio State University as an Associate Professor of Digital Media Studies.

Michael Trice is a Lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His past research projects have examined how participant experience levels inform user experience in community media platforms, how crowd-sourced instruction rhetorically frames online activism, and how reasoning can be visualized in scientific discourses.

[1] Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. Yale University Press. [back]

[2] Coleman, S., & Blumler, J. G. (2009). The Internet and democratic citizenship: Theory, practice and policy. Cambridge University Press. [back]